5757 - #27

The Demand of Effort

Lo b'shamayim hi, "and it is no longer in the heavens,"1. as the Talmudic source for one of the most significant halachic principles -- that, post-Sinai, we are not to consult the Divine in matters of halachic determination but rather Halacha is to exist in the realm of human thought,2. -- is one of the most famous sayings in the Torah. Yet, in the context of the Torah text, this phrase is coupled with another - "and it is not beyond the sea."3. Within its simple meaning, these verses declare that Torah observance4. is within human grasp, neither, figuratively, "in the sky" or "beyond the sea". As, though, a much deeper understanding of the phrase lo b'shamayim hi is deduced, we may wonder if a parallel deeper understanding of the phrase v'lo m'ever l'yam is also contemplated.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, indeed, presents such an interpretation. He explains that the reference to the heavens is in response to the individual who may claim that Torah observance is impossible because there is no-one with the supernatural abilities to consult G-d and thus determine His True Will. To such a person, we respond lo b'shamayim hi, that the Revelation at Sinai was complete and now the Torah is in the hands of the human mind to determine its true meaning. V'lo m'ever l'yam, similarly, is in response to the individual who argues that observance and any understanding of Torah is infeasible unless we gain a full comprehension of its necessarily foreign frame of reference, context and environment - tasks which, figuratively, would demand of us to search to the other side of the globe. Torah is accessible from all perspectives. To Rabbi Hirsch, it is to the epistemological framework of Torah that both these verses are referring.

The context of the verses actually seem to be pointing to a difficulty with the accessibility of the goal and not with the strenuousness of the task. The verse does not declare that the Torah is not in the heavens and therefore we need not be afraid of the effort necessary to reach the heavens. The verse states that since the Torah is not in the heavens, we need not be concerned with finding someone with the ability to reach the heavens. The difficulty with a Torah "in the heavens" is not that it would demand too much effort to grasp it but rather that it would be inherently very difficult to achieve.5. Thus Rabbi Hirsch understands these verses as informing us that the Torah task is not beyond us but, rather, is accessible to the human mind. As to the challenge of the goal, though, it, in fact, does demand effort.

T.B. Eruvin 55a actually presents these verses as proofs that the Torah does demand effort. In declaring that the Torah is not "in the heavens or beyond the sea", we are spared the difficult task of reaching "for the heavens" to grasp it -- but if the Torah would have had demanded that we indeed did have to go "to the heavens", we would have had to make that effort. Yet, with this statement, is Torah not exempting us from this effort? Perhaps the Torah could have demanded effort but with these statements, is the Torah not telling us that Torah observance is not so difficult that it should demand effort? Rashi,6. though, explains the gemara as proof that effort is, in fact, necessary for Torah. The essence of the gemara's statement must lie in that the concern was the perceived impossibility of the task, not the effort that would have to be exerted in the acquisition of Torah. The fact is that the

Torah does not raise as the concern that the task is too strenuous; this only indicates that effort and hard work indeed are part of Torah.

The very challenges of lo b'shamayim hi and v'lo m'ever l'yam actually indicate this concept. In one respect, these statements present comfort; the Torah is informing us that the task before us is within our grasp. Yet, these statements also represent a challenge to us; it is an attainable goal so you are expected to exert the effort necessary to achieve this objective. This understanding actually further explains the subsequent analysis of these verses in T.B. Eruvin 55a, The gemara continues, through midrashic analysis, to present views that indicate that these verses are declaring that Torah is not attainable by one who is haughty.7. Is there a connection between this midrashic insight and the simple presentation of the verse? Who is, in fact, the one that declares a task too difficult? One is the lazy individual; another is the one who is lacking any self-esteem so that any task is too difficult. The gemara, though, is telling us that it is usually haughtiness that makes us declare a task too difficult.

To attempt a goal must necessitate the realization that we, at present, are lacking the goal. To strive for more money means we are lacking this money. To strive for Torah must also mean that we lack Torah. To strive to be more righteous must mean that we are lacking this level of righteousness. How do we look at this lack? If the lack is attainable, then I must accept my deficiency and strive for this goal. The haughty individual, unable to accept a personal deficiency, declares, though, that the task is not attainable for any human being. His/her lack, therefore, is not a personal deficiency as he/she is all that a human being could possibly be. The one who cannot perceive personal weakness also cannot attain the Torah.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1.Devarim 30:12.

2. See T.B. Baba Metzia 59b and Temura 16a. The subject is actually a matter of great discussion and debate. See further T.B. Yevamot 14a, Tosefot, Baba Metzia 59b, d.h. lo b'shamayim hi and NISHMA ISSUES, Number 4.

3. Devarim 30:13.

4. The exact subject of these verses is actually a matter of controversy with commentaries, such as Ramban, Devarim 30:11, presenting the view that the discussion actually is focusing on teshuva. With the approach of Rosh Hashanah, readers may wish to further investigate this approach. In this regard, see also Sforno and HaEmek Davar. Our discussion, though, will assume that it is the general observance of Torah that is the subject of these verses.

5. This distinction is also alluded to in Siftei Chachamim, Devarim 30:12, note 4.

6. Rashi, T.B. Eruvin 55a, d.h. Haynu D'amar Rav Adimi.

7. One is invited to further investigate this gemara to ascertain the subtle distinctions in the variant viewpoints.

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